Working it out with Wolves

wolvesHow Montanans are learning to live with the state’s gray wolf population—and training the wild canids to live with Montanans. By Tom Dickson

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
July–August 2006

Tourists leaving Yellowstone National Park on U.S. Highway 89 can easily see Bruce Malcolm’s cattle grazing along the west slope of Paradise Valley, 20 miles north of Gardiner. Unfortunately, so can an increasing number of wolves leaving the park, where the controversial canines were reintroduced a decade ago.

“The first calf we lost was in 1999,” says Malcolm, a semi-retired rancher and state representative for a legislative district encompassing 4,000 square miles of mostly federal forest and private livestock operations. “We were at our cabin up on the summer range, and the cows were acting strange, crowding around the yard. The next morning my daughter went riding before work to see if she could find her calf. All that was left was the skull cap and ear tag.”

Malcolm can’t be 100 percent certain it was a wolf. But he knows wolves will kill calves and that wolves have been nearby. “Every fresh snow we see fresh tracks right down there in the driveway,” he says. “Wolves aren’t afraid to come onto the property.”

For Malcolm and many other citizens, Montana is a different place now that wolves are back. Raising livestock is more challenging. Hunters wonder if deer and elk herds can hold up in the face of wolf predation. Rural residents worry about their safety. Wolf advocates and others welcome the renewed biodiversity wolves bring to the region.

“We know there’s a wide range of interests out there regarding wolves,” says Jeff Hagener, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “Our job is to manage wolves on the Montana landscape using the best science available, while at the same time responding to the diverse concerns of people who live, work, and recreate in wolf range.”

Return of a Native
When European immigrants moved west, they found a region full of wolves. In 1843, while exploring the Missouri River near today’s North Dakota–Montana border, John James Audubon wrote that the predators were “extremely abundant” and recorded seeing more than two dozen wolves some days. When their natural foods—bison, deer, and elk—were nearly eliminated in the late 19th century by market hunting and replaced with sheep and cattle, wolves began preying on livestock. Ranchers and government agencies responded by aggressively poisoning, trapping, and shooting the predators. By the 1930s, only occasional nomads from Canada were left.

In the early 1970s, when the public sensed that wolves might disappear from the lower 48 states altogether, the species became one of the first to be shielded by the Endangered Species Act. Wolves began naturally recolonizing northern Montana from British Columbia in 1979. By the mid-1980s, a few packs anchored western Glacier National Park and established new packs from there. The 126 wolves now spread across northwestern Montana are classified as federally “endangered.”

Roughly 130 wolves in Montana’s southern “experimental” area range from Lolo southeast to Red Lodge. They descended from the original 66 wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 and 1996. The controversial reintroduction came after Congress directed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to recover wolves in what was considered the best remaining habitat in the lower 48 states.

Watching wolf numbers grow and distribution expand, Montana officials knew the population would soon reach federal recovery goals. To meet federal delisting requirements, the state formed a wolf advisory council of ranchers, outfitters, wolf advocates, and other Montana citizens to map out a state management plan. After hosting public meetings statewide and reviewing roughly 10,000 public comments, FWP finished the plan in 2003. The USFWS almost immediately approved the plan, which outlines how Montana aims to fit wolves into a landscape where people live and work, while ensuring the population never falls below 10 breeding pairs—Montana’s minimum share of a viable Northern Rockies population.

The USFWS also approved Idaho’s plan, but it rejected Wyoming’s due to a provision that would allow unlimited numbers of wolves to be killed in most of that state. Because wolves in all three Northern Rockies states are considered a single population, the federal agency has stalled delisting. However, the agency agreed in 2005 to transfer wolf management responsibility to Montana and Idaho. The federal government is currently paying for both states’ management activities.

“The agreement is a major step for Montana,” says Hagener. “It recognizes that wolves are recovered here, and it begins the transition to long-term conservation.”

As part of the agreement, FWP has begun carrying out much of the state’s wolf plan. Five wolf management specialists across western and south-central Montana monitor the wolf population by documenting pack locations and, when appropriate, tracking individual radio-collared animals. The specialists record pack sizes, reproduction, and survival and note which livestock producers might be affected by wolves.

Last year FWP created a web page where people can report wolf sightings. “We combine that information with aerial, track, and howling survey information to paint a picture of where Montana wolves are and what they are doing,” says Carolyn Sime, coordinator of FWP’s Wolf Conservation and Management Program. The department also provides information on wolves on its website and at dozens of presentations given throughout the year.

Though Montana now manages the state’s wolves, the species remains on the federal list of threatened and endangered species. For now, federal regulations still apply to how landowners may respond to wolves. Those regulations differ depending on where in the state wolves are, a bone of contention with many Montanans.

On private land in the southern “experimental” area, landowners or their employees may, under certain conditions, chase off or even kill a wolf that is harassing or attacking livestock or domestic dogs. However, in northern Montana, where wolves are classified as endangered, private citizens cannot haze or kill wolves to protect livestock or dogs.

Perspectives differ
By tracking pack locations in both areas, FWP biologists have learned that many wolves move past livestock unnoticed. “Wolves walk by cattle and sheep everyday in much of western Montana,” says Sime. She adds, however, that some wolves do learn to prey on sheep and cattle. “And for the individual ranchers who lose livestock, it’s a very real problem.”

How much of a problem is a matter of perspective. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Montana livestock operators reported losing 66,000 cattle last year to disease, birthing difficulties, accidents, and other causes. Of the 3,000 cattle reportedly killed by predators, including coyotes, dogs, mountain lions, and bears, USDA Wildlife Services last year confirmed 23 wolf kills. The actual number is likely several times higher because many calves are never recovered or the cause of death cannot be verified.

“Even if the wolf kill is five times higher than what is officially confirmed, that’s still a miniscule percentage of the overall cattle losses,” says Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

Yet many ranchers maintain that the loss of even a single cow cuts into their bottom line. “We’re a small, family-run operation,” says Bill Brownlee, who ranches in the Boulder River Valley about 10 miles south of Big Timber. “We can’t absorb many losses.” He and other ranchers believes wolves also stress cattle, causing weight loss and miscarriages.

Nevertheless, most livestock operators concede that the predators are back in Montana permanently. “Like it or not,” says Malcolm, “wolves are here to stay.”

Decreasing risk
Recognizing the inevitable, many ranchers are working with FWP and private conservation organizations to decrease depredation risk. Last year, Brownlee and other ranchers in the Boulder River Valley teamed up with the USDA Natural Resources and Conservation Service and the Bozeman-based Predator Conservation Alliance. The partners hired three riders to patrol cattle herds throughout the valley from April through October.

Other sheep and cattle ranchers use electric fence, guard dogs, fladry (fence flagging), and sirens to deter wolves and other predators. FWP provides cracker shells and rubber bullets. Such measures help wolves steer clear of humans and livestock.

“Nothing is 100 percent effective,” says Sime. “The trick is to find ways to discourage wolves from killing livestock in the first place. We work with producers to find tools that work best for them.”

Some wolves learn bad habits that are hard to break. Those that continue hunting and killing livestock often have to be killed.

Unlike coyote losses, ranchers can be reimbursed for wolf depredation. The environmental group Defenders of Wildlife pays 100 percent of fair market value for confirmed wolf kills and 50 percent for probable kills. However, some ranchers think the group’s verification process is too strict, and others don’t like taking money from what they consider an adversary.

Defenders of Wildlife may end its private compensation program once wolves are delisted. A committee of Montana ranchers, wolf advocates, and public agency representatives recently sketched out a new reimbursement program that would use federal and private funding to pay for prevention tools and reimburse verified losses. Most ranchers say that even though reimbursement can fall short of the true costs, it takes some of the pain out of raising livestock in what has again become wolf country.

Just another critter
Though wolves inspire both fear and reverence, biologists point out that the wild canid is just another wildlife species. FWP has begun managing them that way, by monitoring populations, conducting research, and eventually, according to Montana’s wolf management plan, providing regulated hunting seasons. Regulated harvest is a tool that could help balance wolf numbers with private property damage, concerns about human safety, prey populations, and public acceptance of large carnivores.

The mountain lion is an example. For most of the state’s history, the large cat could be shot on sight and cashed in for bounty. When the mountain lion was protected as a big game animal under state law in 1971, FWP began regulating lion mortality under a hunting quota system. With regulated hunting, the mountain lion population has improved to the point where both hunters and predator advocates now publicly support the cat’s conservation.

“It’s hard for some people to understand that Montana’s cougar population has benefited from being managed as a big game animal, but it’s true,” says Sime. “We think it could be the same for wolves.”

Some people, however, aren’t sure full state management authority would be in wolves’ best interests. In addition to concerns over Wyoming’s management plan and its legislature’s anti-wolf rhetoric, wolf supporters were alarmed when Idaho recently proposed killing up to 80 percent of the wolves near the Montana border, alleging the predators are depressing the local elk population.

“The states don’t have a good track record of dealing with endangered species,” says Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “They’re still under intense political pressure from hunters and ranchers to eradicate wolves, just like they were 100 years ago.”

Hagener insists Montana can be trusted to ensure the long-term health of its wolf population. “Montana’s wolf program balances conflicting viewpoints and has strong and diverse statewide support,” he says. “We have a solid reputation of effectively managing large carnivores and conserving their populations.”

Montana officials continue to strongly urge the USFWS to delist wolves in Montana and any other state that has a federally approved wolf management plan.

“We shouldn’t be held hostage by Wyoming’s stubbornness,” Hagener says.

Survivors, all
Meanwhile, the ever-pragmatic Montana ranchers continue to figure out how best to live with wolves. Brownlee says his primary goal is to keep his operation afloat. “I have two young kids, and I want them to be able to stay in the ranching business if they want to,” he says.

To that end, the rancher has been doing things he never dreamed of. Last fall Brownlee and other ranchers celebrated the first season of the three-year range rider project they’d developed with the Predator Conservation Alliance.

“Their [the PCA’s] board of directors was in town that weekend, so we invited them to our get-together,” Brownlee says. “At one point I really couldn’t believe it was happening, but there we were, having dinner in the Legion Hall in Big Timber, all of us getting to know one another.”

The rancher acknowledges that ten years ago he would have fought the wolf advocates tooth and nail. “But nowadays it makes more sense to sit down at a table and work things out,” he says.

Brownlee points out that ranchers have always adapted to change. “We adapt to changing weather, we adapt to changing markets, and now we’re adapting to wolves.”Bear bullet

The 2005 Montana Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Annual Report contains additional information about ongoing wolf management, including summaries of the state’s verified wolf packs. To read the report and other wolf-related information, including details of regulations in the state’s two federal wolf areas, visit For USFWS information on Northern Rockies wolves, go to

Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.